In the winter of 2010, we drove through the countryside between Luduș and Apahida in Transilvania, in what is known as lake country because of the many natural and man-made lakes in the area. As we traveled through, it began to snow and the drab grey and black landscapes suddenly turned white and beautiful. We stopped the car in several places to take in that serene quiet and fresh air that you can only feel and smell when it’s snowing. Enjoy the photographs!
This fortified church looked quite different when it was first built using the Romanesque style in the beginning of the 12th century AD. It was soon destroyed by the Tartar Invasion of 1241-1242. Afterward, the work progressed more slowly and in the Cistercian Gothic style which we see today. Parts of the older structure were used and integrated into the new architecture, resulting in a larger, unified whole where you can still see that some things don’t quite belong. For example, at one of the main entrances you get to glimpse part of the older, lower entrance to the left of the Gothic arches.
The chorus balcony dates back to 1370, is 23 meters tall and the columns which support it are 11 meters tall. The main structural work ended around the year 1420, the Saxons having made a lot of progress in the late 14th century due to a period of prosperity. The church itself was fortified and an impressive defense wall was built around the edifice. A separate chapel was built on the side of the church where religious objects and clothing are stored.
In the 15th century, Sebes entered a period of Ottoman occupation that lasted 40 years. Somehow the guilds prospered in this period and that meant the church was further developed and decorated. The Renaissance altar is 13 meters tall and 6 meters wide and dates to 1520. The Gothic ceiling supports are decorated with sculpted Green Men, mythological and biblical creatures. The church has a beautiful and functional organ built in 1791 by the brothers Reiger and a black grand piano built in the second half of the 19th century. When we skip forward to WWI, we find out that the church bells were confiscated and used for cannonballs, but they were replaced in 1925. A restoration effort in the mid-1960s brought the church somewhat modern amenities such as electric lighting and it took care of various structural and decorative issues.
Services are still held in the church (see the schedule posted in the photo gallery) but very few Saxon parishioners are left (about 20 of them attend regularly).
Enjoy the photographs!
There’s a small canyon in the countryside between Medias and Sibiu called Canionul Mihăileni. A river split open a hill right down the middle, creating a rift where some fossils were found. The river’s no longer around. It’s an interesting site and one which we tried to find one day but couldn’t, because there are no signs and no guides in the area. We drove around till it got dark and then we figured we’d best stop and turn back, or else we might find ourselves stranded in a field overnight. There are only dirt roads there, with deep ruts in places and rocks sticking out of the mud — just the kind of a situation that can gift you with a broken oil pan and a seized engined. At the time we had a VW Golf, which is infamous for the low placement of its oil pan. It’s like a short-legged horse with low-hanging you-know-whats. One hit and it’s going legs-up… It happened to us more than once.
Long story short, the photos you’ll see here are “not exactly” from the Mihăileni Canyon. They’re from the approximate area. But it was autumn, there were rolling hills all around and the foliage was beautiful, so photography-wise, it wasn’t a disappointment. Maybe someday we’ll make it to the actual canyon. Enjoy the photographs!
There is a fortified church in the small village of Moardăș in Transilvania, also known as “Mardisch” in German and “Mardos” in Hungarian. A strange-sounding name in Romanian, Moardăș it seems has cuman origins and comes from the precursors of the Hungarians of today. The older name seems to have been Ardesch (as the Saxons pronounced it), first mentioned in written documents in 1373 along with a priest named Michael of Ardesch. The village later became known as Mardesch, with the other variations being Muardesch and Muerdesch in the Saxon dialect.
Just to show you how small it was, a census taken in 1516 counted 40 households, three widows, a shepherd, a miller and a schoolteacher. By 1532, when Johannes Honterus visited the region to draw a map of Transilvania, the count shrunk to 32 households. In spite of the village’s small size, it had a schoolhouse even in the early 1400s, a fact known because one of its bright young people, a Michael Eckhard of Ardisch, enrolled at the University of Vienna in 1434 to become a lawyer.
We jump to 1850 or so, when the village school gets rebuilt (1848) and a new census reveals the place has gotten bigger. It now has 545 inhabitants. In 1930, 628 inhabitants live in the village. That number shrinks in 1945, when the Communist regime ships quite a few of the Saxons in the village to the Soviet Union, into forced labor camps. Another census taken in 1946 reveals that 44 Saxons had been sent to the USSR, 45 emigrated to Germany and 262 were still in the village. After the Romanian “revolution” (read coup d’etat) of 1989, almost all of the Saxons emigrated to Germany.
I took the photographs you’ll see in this gallery in 2009, 20 years after the Saxons had left the village, leaving only a few of their elderly around. You’ll see them in these photographs below. We stopped to talk with them a bit.
Gypsies had moved into the empty Saxon houses and had systematically destroyed them: sold whatever they could (furniture, goods, etc.), burned the rest for firewood and when one house would fall down, they’d move onto the next one and suck it dry until it fell. By the way, in the States there’s a term for this: it’s called house-squatting and it’s illegal. It’s also illegal in Romania. It’s easier to evict illegal squatters in Romania than it is in the States. All that needs to happen is for the families of the Saxons who own the homes to reclaim the property. Even if it’s been decades, the heirs can successfully reclaim a house. It takes a few months to work that through the legal system but then the problem’s solved for good. I say these things because my heart aches when I see solid, beautiful Saxon homes, built by hard-working, honest farming folk, defaced and brought to the point of ruin by irresponsible social scum. I could show you stuff that’s much worse, in this village and in many others in Southern Transilvania, but I don’t want to go near those places because I’ll get too angry when I see the horrible damage.
Enough crap! Let’s get to the good stuff! Here are images of the fortified church. When we visited, the surrounding fortified wall had mostly fallen down but the church itself was in surprisingly good shape, and so was the parish house next door. That’s because they had the good luck to be renovated in 1913 and again in 1959. By 2009, the altar had been robbed of its valuable center painting and the various religious symbols and objects. The organ had been sold off. The church walls were still standing though. The floor could do with repairs and there were some leaks coming through the roof.
Good news though! Only a year later, in 2010, a work of restoration was spearheaded by a local Saxon, Fritz Roth. Specialists from Germany (Hans Seger and Hans Gröbmayr from München) came to help, a workforce of 30 volunteers was brought in and funds were obtained in part from the US Ambassadors’ Fund for Cultural Preservation. Mark Gitenstein was the US Ambassador to Romania at the time. The restored church was re-consecrated in October of 2011. My photos don’t tell this last part of the story, because they were taken in 2009. Perhaps I’ll get a chance to revisit the place and see how it looks now.
This castle with a rich history is now found in an advanced state of ruin in the out-of-the-way village of Buia (“Bell” in German, “Bólya” in Hungarian) in Transilvania, Romania. I took these photographs in 2009. I don’t know how much of it still stands today, eight years later. The castle isn’t big but it is interesting in its mix of gothic and baroque architecture and it must have looked beautiful when it was in good shape. In its heyday, it had 12 rooms. The courtyard was paved and furnished with stone tables and chairs. Outside, there was a walking alley lined with chestnut trees. Pine trees were planted all around the castle. One source says the castle’s chapel possibly existed even before the castle itself and was integrated into one of its wings afterward. Another source says there existed at one point a particularly gruesome execution room where the guilty were thrown into sickle blades, and that there was a tall linden tree just outside the castle where people were hung and kept there as an example for others.
The full name of the place is the Toldi-Bolyai Castle and its construction dates from 1324. If the name Bolyai sounds familiar to you, that’s because the largest university in Romania is named Babeș-Bolyai and it’s in Cluj-Napoca, about 2 hours away by car from this castle. Another written mention from 1467 says it belonged to Vízaknai Miklós, about whom I cannot find more information, but given that Vízaknai is Ocna Sibiului, which is not far away from Buia, I take it Miklós was the ruler of the region at that time. In 1599, we find the castle in the possession of Mihai Viteazul, a legendary Romanian ruler, to whom it was gifted by Báthory Zsigmond (the ruler of Transilvania at the time) after the battle of Șelimbăr, along with a number of villages in the area. After Mihai’s death, the castle came to the Gálfi family; Gálfi János left an inscription above the castle’s entrance which is barely visible now. It was then gifted to Toldi György (hence the castle’s name) by Bethlen Gábor, who was Prince of Transilvania at the time. The Toldi family kept the castle until the 19th century. In 1920, the castle became the property of the government of Romania. A village dispensary was built there by modifying some of the rooms for the needs of medical personnel. It functioned until 1978, after which the place was left to the winds and was used for the storage of various village goods without any care at all for its state.
This historic church is a bit harder to find. Bahnea (“Bachnen” in German, “Bonyha” in Hungarian) is a small village off the main roads, which you can only reach by driving on narrower county roads. The church itself is also hard to spot even when you’re in the village, because it’s hidden away behind the houses and backyard gardens, on a small hill. Here is a link to its location on Google Maps. It is a beautiful structure though, with lots of history, and the priest is an easygoing Hungarian fellow who is glad to talk with you and show you around.
The village is first mentioned in written documents in 1291. The church dates to the beginning of the 14th century, sometime between 1300-1350. The owners of the church (and the village) were the Bánffy family, an old Hungarian aristocratic family with lots of history and properties (castles and palaces) in Transilvania.
Just like the Saxons, the Hungarians who came to live in Transilvania were initially Catholic and later became Reformed. The Saxons became Evangelical around 1500 and the Hungarians became Reformed around 1600. So it was with the Church. Built Catholic, its walls were adorned with frescoes and its columns with various sculptures and Green Men. Come the Reformation, the frescoes were whitewashed and some of the sculptures defaced, and they stayed that way until the 20th century, when a restoration effort uncovered some of them.
Enjoy the photographs!
As opposed to these photos, the ones you’ll see here are popular sights most tourists get to see (or not, depending on what they’re looking at). Enjoy!